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I became interested in the Belgrade Bull when Ann Butterfield showed me a letter she found in the research collections of the Pioneer Museum in Bozeman.  Ann, who is associate director of the museum, thought maybe I could write an article based on it.  I love piecing together stories out of the detritus of the past, so I decided to give it a try.

The bull has been legendary in the southwest Montana town of Belgrade for more than a hundred years and soon I was buried under a treasure trove of newspaper clippings, letters and reminiscences. From them, I assembled an article that was published in the Spring 2009 issue of  The Pioneer Museum Quarterly.

Ann gave me permission to share it on my blog, but it’s too long for a single post so I’ll present it in installments.  The Belgrade Bull, Part 1.

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Mention of the famous Belgrade Bull can still prompt passionate debate among fans of rodeo history—and it’s been more than a century since that son of a milk cow dumped dozens of cowboys in the dirt. In addition to his alliterative name, he had several characteristics that make him the stuff of legend. He had a gentle disposition and could be led down a crowded parade route on a thin rope. But the moment a cowboy climbed on his back, he became a bucking machine that no man could ride. Or did a few men succeed? Should Starkey Teeples’ ride with a rigged saddle count? How about Bill Sitton’s ride with a double-chinch?  Or John “Kid” Kelly’s ride when the bull was blindfolded? Were newspaper reports that Joe Kirkwood rode him to a standstill true? Most important, where did Jake Ross get his medal that said he rode the Belgrade Bull?

The bull was born in 1889 on the Jim Ballard ranch on Dry Creek north of town. His pedigree is unknown but his mother was a milk cow and he bore the black-and-white markings of the Holstein dairy breed. A dairy cow gives more milk than a calf needs, so the bull probably was taken from his mother at birth and raised by hand. Bucket fed calves naturally bond with their human caretakers. In fact, the Belgrade Bull was noted for his genteel disposition.

When the bull was weaned, Jim Ballard’s neighbor, Annie Miller, bought him. She apparently planned to use him to sire a whole herd of black and white dairy cows. She called him “Jim Ballard” or more likely, “that Ballard Bull.” When the Johnston brothers, Pres and Al, bought the bull they named him “Corbett” after the heavyweight boxer, “Gentleman Jim” Corbett who won the national championship with his “scientific” style of boxing. That was appropriate—people said Corbett, the Belgrade Bull, used the scientific method to throw his riders. Will Everson, a Montana newspaperman described Corbett’s bucking style:

“Corbett is a ‘curve pitcher’ all right—and with a hump in his back that makes the saddle look undecided, and a bound skyward that makes the rider think of heaven, home, and mother—he rolls his hide until saddle and rider take a position at right angles to the original one.

“Then the bull throws his head around and gives the rider that sort of where-have-I-met-you-look. And while the victim yet gazes and guesses, Corbett gets in his ‘beautiful curve.’ With a swish of this tail, he straightens his body and gives his height prodigious roll. This sends the saddle and rider spinning over to the other side with a momentum that carries them nearly under his belly. Anon he strikes the earth with a sharp, sudden shock, and for a moment seems to stand on the point of his nose, with his tail straight in the air.

“If the rider is not ‘sent to the grass’ by the first buck, the bull continues, constantly adding new and different variations while in mid-air. Three, four, or five jumps usually does away with the most experienced bronco riders, and six is the most that he has ever done with a ‘clean saddle.'”

Pres Johnston, who managed Corbett during his bucking exhibitions, said that as soon as the rider was off his back, Corbett resumed his friendly disposition

“After he threw his rider, he would stop and come up to me, as I would have a piece of bread or some biscuits for him. He liked them very much. When he was out running loose in town, some women would go out to their gate and call him to feed him some bread. He would come on the run when they would hello, “Come Corbett.” He knew his name.”

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— To see the next installment, “A Local Legend Goes National” In 1910 a worn-out cowboy named “Curley” told Corbett’s story in a feature article in the Saturday Evening Post.  Curly was prone to exaggeration and not obsessed with accuracy, click here.

— To see all of the stories about Corbett, The Belgrade Bull, click on “Belgrade Bull” under “Categories” in the column to the right.

—Illustration from the Saturday Evening Post, September 10, 1910.

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